I have been teaching and writing for almost 30 years. In that time, I’ve found myself moved by my students’ struggles to find and write their stories. Their struggles have mirrored my own, and bind us. We have a common pursuit, it seems to me, to have our voices heard, which is more than shouting out into the void. It is to find a bridge, a connection with others, a momentary expression of union, merger, even love.

I imaged I’d be a writer from the first time I read “Call of the Wild” and realized I inhabited the point of view of a dog. I felt the great freedom of imagining I was something other than myself and yet still gaining life lessons from the experience.

Reading, for me, was an escape from life but also not an escape. It was an engagement with life that I could tolerate, that seemed safe. Over time, writing became that too, both an escape but also a way I could engage with life.

I’ve been involved in reading and writing all of my life, as a student and as a teacher, and over the my career, I’ve become more and more interested in the ways stories address the difficulty of human struggle both for the writer, the reader, and universally for all, without the distinctions of race, class, or gender. Stories treat significant events that effect character. That effect is a kind of damage but it is also an opening, an evolution.

In a sense, I’m interested in stories and trauma, because, it seems to me, stories are always dealing with the traumatic events our our lives–the way we are hurt by life but also in the ways we triumph. I’m interested in the ways stories help us cope and heal, and the psychologically relevant ritual of destruction and renewal.

The stories we share serve as a form of commiseration that creates a shared experience of catharsis, at least for a moment. That movement toward catharsis is the discovery. That it is possible, is the message. A story is a gift of experience to the reader.

Stories, however, are not all good. They suffer from a writer’s narrowness of view and our human inability to perceive our own subjective perspective. Stories are and can be a Trojan horse, perpetuating narrow assumptions. There is also, to my mind, a huge difference between art and propaganda. If, in art, we are moved to new territories, propaganda reaffirms where we are. We do like it, even need it from time to time, particularly in times of strain and anxiety, but finally recalcitrance is destructive.  We do want both, art, which is more difficult and propaganda which contributes to our anxiety because, on some level, we understand it as incomplete.

I’ve always loved stories. There were an escape for me from difficult life. Not that the stories weren’t about difficult things, but that my relationship with them was metaphorical. I could identify with a protagonist but also clearly not be that protagonist. In this way, I used stories to both escape from life and practice for life.  In this way, stories demonstrated my conflicted feeling–to separate, to preserve the “self,” and to join, which would obliterate the self. This is a notion that Anne Carson captures well in her book, “The Eros of the Bittersweet.”

Later, I imagined myself as a writer, except I was clearly not writing–very much. What I was really trying to do was formulate an ego, a sense of identity within the world–I was trying to figure out how to accomplish both my aims, to separate and join, by establishing who I was and hoping that person would also belong and be necessary.

I also, very much, wanted to be loved and admired. Unfortunately, no matter how much positive response I might have gotten from others, I didn’t and couldn’t believe it, because I had deeply internalized feelings that I was “wrong,” somehow deviated from the norm, and needed to be fixed.

I lived with a clear judgement of good and evil, and I was constantly evaluating myself, trying as well as I could to “fix” the problem of myself. “To fix” was the only method I knew–the perfection model. I didn’t know that my dedication to that process reconfirmed what I already felt, that I was broken, that the striving for perfection was a mirror of imperfection. I had constructed a narrative, but it wasn’t art. It was propaganda.

Imprisoned within my own story, I attempted an escape by suicide in 1992 when I was 29.

I failed in that attempt by a miracle. If that was a call for help, I found out what I already intuitively knew, that there was no one who could help me but myself. It was then that I began to pursue a career in writing in earnest, to, in effect, “save myself.” I knew the cost of failure.  Writing was a path, but it was still, like my escapism of the past, a rather conflicted path. Running toward, I’ve learned, also means running from. I was running, but I was far from confronting my own demons.

I took a writing workshop in Bennington VT, where Barry Hannah said my work “meandered like a drunk on a bender.” “You should know,” I later told him. He suggested I apply to the University of Arkansas for an MFA, which I did. There I found the community I craved and the guidance of core faculty who understood that the role of mentorship is one not of instruction but of acceptance. We were all writers, after all, and involved in the struggle of life.

There I also had one of my most profound experiences as a developing writer, interviewing and writing the story of a soldier traumatized by his experience in Iraq. The essay took me over a year to research, draft, and finally send out for publication. I was a perfectionist about it, and held myself to my highest standards. It was accepted by several publications. and also lead my application for Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowship.

Later, when I’d completed a novel using the same character as the central protagonist, an agent asked me, “Why do you have to tell this story?” At the time, I didn’t know. Not answering that question, shelved the manuscript. I’m a little closer to the answer now.

Since that time, my creative nonfiction, stories, and poems have been published in The SunThe Missouri ReviewThe Alaska Quarterly Review, Barrow Street, Southern Indian Review and others.  My work has been anthologized several times, twice in Best New American Voices: in 2003, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and in 2009, edited by Mary Gaitskill, and in Steve Eliott’s Politically Inspired Anthologies. I have also published essays in the Rumpus.net and reviews. “The Fantome of Fatma” won the Missouri Review’s Editor’s Prize. “The Storekeeper” was selected for a Margolis Prize in Creative Nonfiction.  I have been awarded a number of residency-fellowships including the Stanford Resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France and MacDowell and Ucross fellowships.

I continue to write, teach, and consult. I have found people all over the world who share a passion for storytelling, and for life.

In the end, I can’t control how language is used, nor stories. Sometimes they are used to advance personal interests and to manipulate. Often our propagandists are our most influencial storytellers. But I can add my voice and share what I know. I am happy to share all I know with anyone who asks.

I believe in the human heart and I believe in our aspirations.  I believe everyone wants to make the world a better place. I want to empower the individual and amplify the voices of the unheard. I believe our hope for the future rests with our ability to reach out and gain an empathetic understanding with others, and I believe that creating art is necessary for ourselves on our continued path toward enlightenment. I believe in us. This is the way I’ve found.